From Our CORAL Research

2021 Newsletter


Learning, Having, Trying: Children Select Objects to Achieve Their Goals.

By: Claudia Sehl, MASc

Some theories of curiosity suggest that children prefer to learn about novel objects over familiar ones, as they provide a greater opportunity for learning. For instance, imagine there is a lionfish and a goldfish at a zoo. Children may prefer to learn about a lionfish instead of a goldfish, since they know little about lionfish. However, children may not always prefer novel things. For instance, if children were choosing a pet at a store, they may prefer the goldfish over the lionfish, as it is familiar to them. This example suggests that preferences for novel things depend on the goal to learn or have them, which is what we explored in two experiments.

In one experiment, we showed 4- to 7-year-olds pairs of objects, such as umbrellas, chairs, cups, and lamps. One object in each pair looked typical, and the other looked atypical (e.g., a four-legged chair and a ten-legged chair; a normal umbrella and one with two canopies). Then, we asked children either which item they would rather have, or which item they would rather learn about. We found that 4-year-olds wanted to have and learn about the items equally, but children aged 5-7-years-old wanted to have the typical items and learn about the atypical items. Based on these findings, we expected that children avoided having novel objects as they posed greater risk than familiar ones. Novel objects, such as the ten-legged chair, could be cumbersome, break easily, or look strange amongst other furniture.

In our next experiment, we explored which objects 4- to 6-year-olds preferred to try using. This judgment is particularly interesting, as trying out an object can serve different goals. Trying out an object could be like having it because it allows children the chance to use it. So, children may prefer trying familiar objects. However, trying objects could also serve as an opportunity for children to learn about them. If this is the case, children may prefer to try novel objects. Our results showed that although children again wanted to have familiar objects, they had no preferences for which objects they wanted to try using. Across these two experiments, we found that young children selectively seek novel or familiar objects in order to fulfill their goals of learning about or acquiring resources.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Sehl, C. G., Friedman, O., & Denison, S. (2021). Children’s novelty preferences depend on information-seeking goals. In T. Fitch, C. Lamm, H. Leder, & T Tessmar-Raible (Eds.), Proceedings of the 43rdAnnual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 466-471). Cognitive Science Society.

It’s broke, but can I fix it? Children make exceptions to ownership rights when it benefits the owner.

By: Emily Stonehouse, MA

Typically, we are not allowed to use or modify other people’s property without their consent in order to protect their rights as owners. However, an interesting case arises when someone improves another’s property because this does not hinder the owner’s rights; in fact, it will usually benefit them, such as fixing their broken property. In a few studies, we examined what young children thought about such actions. We showed children two girls at a park, one of whom owned a broken hula. This girl was shown to go home, then we asked children several questions about what they thought of the other girl performing certain actions on the broken hula hoop. We found that 4- to 6-year-olds thought it was more acceptable to fix and replace the broken hula hoop than it was to look at, move, or even stand near it, regardless of whether the owner was a friend or stranger!

Next, we investigated whether the type of improvement, and the owner’s desires, would influence children’s acceptability judgments. We showed 4- to 6-year-olds a scenario where an owner had a mailbox that was either broken, or was a different colour from what the owner wanted. We then asked about the acceptability of a non-owner either fixing it (objective improvement), or painting it the owner’s desired colour (subjective improvement). We found that children judged it acceptable for the non-owner to fix the broken mailbox, replicating our previous work. However, children judged it unacceptable for the non-owner to paint the mailbox the owner’s preferred colour, even though it fulfilled their desires. This suggests that young children don’t consider all types of improvements in the same way, and that they make exceptions to ownership rights when actions involve objective, but not subjective, improvements.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Stonehouse, E. E., & Friedman, O. (2021). Unsolicited but acceptable: Non-owners can access property if the owner benefits. Journal of

Experimental Psychology: General, 150(1), 135–144.